Elizabeth Gertrude Stern
An immigrant's memoir of intergenerational conflict.
Elizabeth Gertrude Stern was born in Poland, in 1890. Her family immigrated to the United States the following year and settled in Pittsburgh. She grew up to become a journalist, novelist, and essayist. She also was an early feminist who rejected her father's traditionalist Judaism, as is clear in the following excerpt from her autobiography, I Am a Woman--And a Jew. Despite the hostility to Orthodox Judaism that she expresses, Stern remained proud of her Jewish identity. Reprinted with permission from Writing Our Lives: Autobiographies of American Jews, 1890-1990, edited by Steven J. Rubin (Jewish Publication Society).
I remember looking down at the face of my father, beautiful and still in death, and for a brief, terrible moment feeling my heart rise up--surely it was in a strange, suffocating relief?--as the realization came to me: "Now I am free!" All my life, for 29 years, he had stood like an image of fine-carved stone, immovable, unbending, demanding that I submit my will and my thought, my every act in life, to the creed he represented. His creed was that of Judaism, brought to the 20th century from the 15th, and held with an intensity an d a passionate faith that would destroy everything in his life, the very happiness of his children, that it might not be, in one small observance, unhonored.
I looked from his features, at peace at last, to those of the man near me, my husband, whose tender eyes met mine with love that he had given me abundantly, and with the sacrifice of everything else in his life to it. My husband's eyes were tender, but they were not sad, not brimming with the bitter loss that lay in my mother's glance, nor even with the deep sorrow that shone in the tears of the bearded rabbis and of the pious merchants about the bier. He could not feel near, nor even really unhappy over the passing of the man who, though he had been father to his wife, had lived in a world utterly removed from his own.
My husband's people have been Christians for many generations: his grandmother, though born a Jewess, became a Christian when she married. His associations and memories are built on repression in human intercourse, on a tolerant acceptance of dogma in others, even Jews, but with no deathless need for it.
To him, the passion of my father, as well as the somber exaltation of my father's friends now about his lifeless body, were alike incomprehensible, despite his gentle acknowledgment of the right each has to build his creed, and to believe in it and practice it. He was a stranger in that room of death, that stranger I had brought into my father's life, when I had joined his life with mine.
I had thought that, by marrying a Christian, I, who was in my heart no longer a Jew, would be free. I was to find not only that on the day of my father's death, but twice again, how mistaken I had been....